In politics, achievements rather than virtuous ambitions are all that matter, writes Peter Dunne

In the early 1970s a new brand of shampoo was released on the New Zealand market. It was called Meadowsong and its marketing relied heavily on its apparently natural contents at a time when environmental consciousness was starting to become an issue. Fitting both the emerging mood of the time and the growing lifestyle focus of television advertising then, its slogan – “Meadowsong, the way the world used to be before we all went mad” – harkened back to a kinder, simpler unspecified time, that never was.

It played on the uncertainty the materialistic 1950s and 1960s had brought about. At the time, the war in Vietnam was still dragging on and the threat of the superpowers initiating nuclear annihilation, either deliberately or accidentally, was still very real. In our part of the world, there was rising anger at French atmospheric nuclear testing in the Pacific.

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The Meadowsong theme was coincidentally in tune with the new kind and gentle age that the newly elected Third Labour Government seemed to be about, even though that new mood was short-lived, snuffed out in the wake of the international economic chaos caused by the First Oil Shock in 1974.

Although Meadowsong has long since disappeared off the supermarket shelves, the aspiration behind the slogan and the desire for a kinder, gentler society has remained, even if turning the world back to the way it “used to be before we all went mad” is no less difficult and elusive an objective to achieve.

In many senses, though, the current Labour Government seems more and more focused on recreating the “vibe” of those allegedly kinder, gentler times. As the immediacy of the Covid-19 crisis retreats, and with New Zealand First off the scene, both of which constrained it so much in its first term, the hitherto “do nothing” government now seems increasingly determined to put its clear stamp on our political landscape over the next couple of years.

Ironically, the crisis sparked by Covid-19 is aiding and abetting that process. The combination of the Government’s competent handling of the response so far (remember it was trailing in the polls when Covid-19 broke out) and the emerging feeling worldwide that, whatever happens, the world will not be the same again, have provided it the justification to reconsider virtually every social and economic policy setting. And flush with the first absolute parliamentary majority in a generation, Labour seems determined to do so.

So far, its Meadowsong reversion has seen it foreshadow a much more hands-on central government role in economic management, a more centralised approach to the provision of health services, more centralised management of school resources, a reduction in some local government responsibilities, and now a review of who can come to and live in New Zealand.

Aside from the move to more centralisation at the expense of local decision-making and responsibility, a latent theme underpinning all this is that the liberal economic and social policy reforms of the last 40 years have been an aberration that is now ripe to be corrected, or at least rebalanced. While the Government has not gone quite so far as to suggest that Covid-19 itself is a consequence of the way the world has been since the rash of economic change since the 1980s, there seems nonetheless to be an implicit assumption that the advent of the pandemic has provided a reason to review all those settings. The hope that a kinder, gentler, more equal world will emerge as a result is as touchingly optimistic as Meadowsong.

Consistent with this theme, the immigration review announced recently looks as much about reshaping the cultural face of New Zealand as it is about realigning immigration policy to meet changing economic needs.

New Zealand’s immigration policy has gone through four distinct phases in the post war period, each more or less appropriate to their times. Until the early 1970s, the focus was on assisted resettlement from traditional European source countries and as time went on, increasingly from the Pacific region. From the mid-1970s assisted resettlement was phased out and, under the Muldoon government, there was much tighter regulation of who could enter New Zealand. In the 1980s through to about 2000, the focus shifted to specified migrant categories and attracting skilled migrants. This was broadened over the past 20 years to a focus on attracting people of skill and talent. The upshot was not only that New Zealand society has become far more diverse because of the wider range of backgrounds and skills of migrants, but also that our population has expanded sharply over the past 30 years, increasing by more than half a million, or around 10 percent since 2013.

Given the economic changes induced by the outbreak of Covid-19, a review of immigration policy was timely and inevitable. However, some aspects of the Government’s review, being conducted by the now distinctly left-leaning Productivity Commission under its new chair, Dr Ganesh Nana, are concerning. There were eerie shades of the Cullen Tax Review supposedly being the cover for the capital gains tax that never was, in Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi’s announcement that “the Government already had an idea of what the issues were, but it was for the Productivity Commission to produce a body of evidence”. In other words, the Commission’s review is more about finding the facts to suit the Government’s pre-formed ideas.

Similarly, the Government’s recent announcement that it intends to legislate for a national system of “Fair Pay” agreements – the 1970s National Awards system you have when you do not have National Awards – is difficult to separate from Finance Minister Robertson’s comment that “some firms, industries and regions rely heavily on migration to meet their skill and labour needs and there is concern that this has led to downward pressure on wages.” As Faafoi has said, the Government’s wish is that “those firms that have traditionally relied on migrant labour in the past have a good look at themselves as to what they’re doing in terms of skills and training to make sure New Zealanders can have those opportunities.”

On the face of it, this is hard to argue against, although the point has been rather undercut by this week’s announcement of thousands more short-term migrant spaces to be made available to meet seasonal requirements in horticulture, and skills shortages in the heavy construction sector. Opposition leader Judith Collins was close to the mark when she said that while the government should “think very carefully before they start reinstating the same sorts of numbers that they had before” it needed to understand that “there are some industries and businesses where they have become very reliant on immigrant labour.”

Faafoi’s unspoken assumption that New Zealand industry will willingly give up hiring migrant labour and bear the cost of upskilling suitable New Zealanders, without increasing costs to New Zealanders and export markets borders on the naïve and doctrinaire. A far more likely response is downscaling or moving to more automation and less labour, or just relocating offshore.

A more delicate factor in the immigration equation is ethnic balance. Currently, according to Census data, just over 27 percent of New Zealand residents were not born here. While Maori are the largest non-European ethnicity at nearly 17 percent, the Asian population is just over 15 percent, and around 9 percent are Pasifika. The Government will be under strong pressure, from its Maori Caucus in particular to ensure that this balance is not eroded further. This will be challenging given that the overall migrant proportion of the population has been rising in recent years, with the numbers of New Zealanders identifying as Asian increasing by around 50 percent between the 2013 and 2018 census periods, while those identifying as Maori have risen about 10 percent in the same period.

All these factors suggest that reviewing immigration policy so that in addition to labour market requirements, it takes account of “housing and associated infrastructure, and the natural environment” and that “the jobs we’ve relied on with migrant labour in the past would be able to be filled by New Zealanders” as Robertson and Faafoi say is their ambition, will be very difficult to achieve without impacting on the diversity and wider consumer choices New Zealanders have come to enjoy in recent years. Were it as easy to achieve as the ministers seem to think it is, it would have been done years ago.

As it builds up its reforming dreams, the Government should remember how easily bold ambitions can backfire, especially given its poor delivery record so far. Last week’s big announcement which was apparently supposed to herald more equitable pay arrangements for lower paid public servants but ended up looking like a pay freeze for teachers, nurses and police, led to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance scurrying to make their apologies and eat humble pie after an abrupt “please explain” from the state unions. There is little worse than a government having to admit to a key constituency that it did not “mean” a policy initiative to be so misunderstood, and to then surrender.

It proves the point that Meadowsong ambitions are all very well. Achieving them is vastly more difficult. But, in a world where adverse and unexpected consequences are ever present, achievements, rather than well-meaning hopes and dreams, are ultimately the only thing that counts.

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